Ever since Derek Jeter was handed another Gold Glove award yesterday, the old debate about fielding metrics and their value has once again come to the forefront of baseball discussion on the internet. The statheads have decried Jeter being awarded the honor, pointing to practically every available metric to show that Jeter is an awful defensive player. The traditionalists have basically retorted with “he’s not that bad,” stating that he has legendary instincts on the field and rarely makes mistakes, as evidenced by his low error count and league-leading fielding percentage.
Mark Feinsand spoke to one scout who had the following to say:
“In my opinion I think he’s well-deserving,” the scout said. “I know his range is not as good as a lot of other guys, but aside from that, I still think he’s above average.”
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that his range is declining, but that’s age,” the scout added. “He’s still very good. He’s not able to move left and right as well as he used to, but he always seems to be standing in the right place at the right time.”
“Before, he was above average range-wise, and now he’s just average. I don’t think his defense is going to become a negative for him for quite some time,” the scout said. “They say that great outfielders never have to dive, I think that applies to Jeter, too.
“Because he’s older, a little more wise and he knows opposing hitters, how infields play, his catcher, his pitcher – all those factors. Good shortstops have instincts, and I put an 80 on his instincts this year.
“If you were going to create a baseball player, you’d want him to have Derek Jeter’s brain. That’s part of who he is and that’s never going to change, even if he’s a tick slower. He’s smarter than he was when he was younger.”
That’s the basic gist of the arguments in Jeter’s favor. Another element to the argument is that UZR does not like Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano, and therefore must be fatally flawed. I would like to address defensive metrics in general, and in the process discuss Derek Jeter’s defense.
The defensive metrics that we have are far from perfect. They are all subject to sample size issues, some have inherent biases, and all must cope with the fact that with the technology currently in play, we are unlikely to measure defense with any semblance of exactitude. Additionally, some of the more popular metrics that are based on batted ball and hit location data compiled by video scorers, such as UZR and +/-, are beholden to evaluations that are at least partially subjective. For example, in an excellent Baseball Prospectus article yesterday, Colin Wyers discussed range bias, in which a players range influences his expected outs. Put simply, it suggests that a player with poor range can actually have his UZR or +/- inflated because the scorer who is marking the game will mark a ball that he could not reach out of the player’s zone incorrectly. This subjectivity means that these metrics should not be taken as gospel, and are not fit to be used to evaluate defense with the same degree of confidence as wOBA or FIP might be used to measure other elements of the sport.
This does not make the metrics worthless. Consider that the alternative method for judging defense is to base your evaluations on your observations and the observations of others. Such evaluations are inherently subjective, particularly because most of those doing such evaluations tend to watch particular players a lot more than others, or only get to watch 1 or 2 players at a position a night. Conversely, the evaluations used in metrics are the product of scorers who work hundreds of games and tend to have set parameters within which to work. This does not necessarily make them better, but it does suggest that they have a larger sample size from which to draw.
The point is that there is no perfect way to evaluate defense right now, and that we should try and consider ALL of the data that we have before making an evaluation. A year ago, I might have blindly pointed to UZR and ripped the voters for yesterday’s results. But with all of the questions that have been raised by people such as Colin since that point, I think doing so is irresponsible, and trusts the metrics past the point that its own creators do. As such, it makes sense to look at UZR, but look at DRS, TotalZone, Fan Scouting Reports, nFRAA, fielding percentage, errors, putouts, assists, other fan opinions, the thoughts of scouts, and your own observations as well.
Looking at the full picture like that will give you a much better understanding of where a player stands defensively relative to his peers. That is why I had no issue with Robbie Cano or Mark Teixeira winning yesterday. Some of the metrics like them, some do not, the fans think they are excellent, scouts agree, and my personal observation confirmed that perception. I cannot say with any sort of accuracy that they were the best players at their positions, but I believe they belong in the conversation and have no problem with either player winning. By the same token, I would have been just fine with either of them losing as well. Anyone who thinks they can tell you with exactitude who is the best defensive player at a position is exhibiting immense hubris, believing themselves to be able to block out the incredible amount of bias that goes into such a subjective evaluation. All we can say with at least a bit of certainty at this point is whether someone belongs in the conversation, and even that can get murky depending on which sources of data you value most.
This brings us to Jeter. Everything other than errors, fielding percentage, and the subjective evaluations of a minority of fans, reporters, and scouts sees him as a poor defensive player. Regarding errors and fielding percentage, I do not think anyone can deny that they are an incomplete measure at best. Jeter makes all the plays he can get to, but as Ben Kabak noted, you cannot drop what you do not reach. If you hate advanced metrics and do not want to use them, that is fine. Let’s stick to basic statistics such as putouts and assists, which can help us complete the fielding percentage and errors picture in evaluating defense. Let’s look at how Yankee shortstops stacked up in these areas.
Yankee shortstops made 211 putouts, relative to a league average of 241. Now, some putouts are based on your other fielders, particularly the ones that deal with force plays on throws from other fielders. However, Yankees SS graded out just fine on putouts on force plays, with 107 relative to an average of 102. The problem was on balls caught (88 relative to a 114 average) and tag plays (17 relative to a 26 average), which are more directly attributable to the SS itself. Looking at assists, which are likely a better measure of how many balls the SS is getting to with the ability to then make a play, shows a similar issue, as Yankee shortstops had 405 relative to a league average of 466.
This is not a new issue. Yankee shortstops have been below league average in these areas for EVERY SEASON in the Jeter era other than 2005, and were well below average in most years. This despite the fact that the defenders surrounding Derek were usually around average in these areas, suggesting that it was not the pitchers or other conditions that created this deficiency. These are not advanced metrics, they are very basic stats that simply tell us how many plays the guy makes. Is it perfect? No. But neither is fielding percentage, and this serves to poke a giant hole into the fielding percentage argument.
As for those observers whose eyes tell them that Jeter is still a superior defender, I think some of that has to do with his reputation. Also, as @AndyInSunnyDB notes, missing that many assists still only comes out to about one a series, so the naked eye is much more likely to observe a lack of errors than a missed play per series. However, even if you feel differently and want to take those evaluations at face value, I still think the weight of the evidence leans strongly in favor of the conclusion that Jeter is a poor defender. Both basic and advanced metrics show that he does not make close to the number of plays an average shortstop makes, let alone an elite talent at the position. Most fans, Yankee or not, see him as a poor defender, and it has become obvious to many that he will soon need to be moved off the position.
I am uncertain that I have the expertise or the unbiased, objective evidence to declare Jeter the worst shortstop in baseball. But I can state with a fair amount of confidence that he does not belong in the conversation for the Gold Glove.
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